Syria: Franciscan Custodian opposes military intervention
“I am against foreign intervention. We’ve seen what that led to in Iraq and Afghanistan,” declared Francisan Fr. Pierbattista Pizzaballa, Custodian of the Holy Land, in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, in explaining his opposition to a military intervention in Syria by the international community. Since the 16th century, the “Custody of the Holy Land”, as the Franciscan province of the Middle East is also called, has comprised Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, today’s Jordan, Cyprus and Rhodes. In Syria, the order maintains a whole range of charitable institutions in Damascus, Aleppo, Latakia, and elsewhere.
“The West should certainly apply diplomatic and political pressure, but avoid the use of military force,” Pizzaballa further emphasized. Syria, he said, is in a form of civil war. The Christians are caught between the fronts of the government, which has always supported them, and the fragmented opposition, of which it is still not yet precisely known who they are. “The Christians are afraid of an Iraqi situation.” On the other hand, the country’s mentality has been shaped, to date at least, by its ethnic and religious diversity. Also, Christians are not the targets of the opposition, the government is.
When asked if he considers the policy of Syrian church leaders of preserving the status quo to be the right course, Pizzaballa said, “I well understand the tried and tested approach. But it has no future. Because like it or not, the regime has no future. But I am certainly aware that many are afraid of the situation once it is deposed.” The Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Laham, for example, has called for giving Assad a second chance.
2012 Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem's old city: (First row from right to the left) His Beatitude Fouad Twal (Latin
Patriarch of Jeruslaem, Father Piertbattista Pizzaballa OFM (new Franciscan Custodian of Holy Land) and Bishop Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo (Auxiliary Bishop of Nazareth)
Text of the interview with Custodian Pierbattista Pizzaballa
Q) In Syria, the Christians, who make up a very large part of the population, were quite satisfied with their situation. Do you think that the country is facing an Iraqi scenario once Assad is deposed?
Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “That is our fear. Syria is currently in a kind of civil war. It’s not called that, but that’s what it is. And the Christians are caught between all fronts: between the regime on the one hand, which has always supported them, and the opposition on the other, of which it is still not yet precisely known who they are. There are so many fragmented groups. But it’s true, Christians fear an Iraqi situation. On the other hand, their country is characterised by ethnic and religious diversity. That has shaped the mentality to date. Additionally, they have not been the target of any attacks so far. The main target of the opposition is the regime.”
Q) But that seems to be changing right now. There are reports that Islamists are also attacking Christians.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “You need to be very careful with such reports. The problem is that it’s virtually impossible to obtain reliable, objective news out of Syria. It is certainly true for example that Christians have left Homs. I don’t want to play down the potential danger for Christians. There are extreme Islamic groups active in the country.”
Q) The policy of many church leaders, such as the Melkite Greek Patriarch Gregory III Laham, is a conservative one: preserving the status quo. That is why he has repeatedly urged giving Assad a second chance. Do you believe this is the right course?
Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “I well understand the tried and tested approach. But it has no future. Because like it or not, the regime has no future. But I am certainly aware that many are afraid of the situation once it is deposed.”
Q) Do you expect the West to intervene in Syria?
Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “I don’t think the West will intervene. Syria is not Libya. The country lies in the heart of the Middle East, and an intervention would have incalculable consequences for the entire region.”
Q) Do you believe the West should intervene? It is being demanded for humanitarian reasons.
Pierbattista Pizzaballa: “That’s a difficult question. I am against foreign intervention. We’ve seen what that led to in Iraq and Afghanistan. The West should certainly apply diplomatic and political pressure, but avoid the use of military force.”
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